On Dec. 7, the American Institute of Architects announced that the Yale Center for British Art was selected to receive the 2005 AIA Twenty-five Year Award. Each year the AIA, representing over 74,000 licensed architects and professionals in the industry, honors one significant architectural landmark completed within the last 25 to 35 years that has withstood the test of time.
“This building is a gentle urbane masterpiece,” the jury noted upon announcing the award in an AIA press release. “It offers a quiet foil to its more demonstrative neighbors and, from the interior, frames and augments them. The small specialty shops tucked into its facade give vitality and continuity to the pedestrian character of the street.”
Before the British Art Center, no other museum had incorporated retail space into its design. It is also the fifth building by Louis Kahn to receive the Twenty-Five Year Award from the AIA. The museum opened to the public in 1977, one year before Kahn’s death, and is one of his two buildings on campus. The other building, the Yale University Art Gallery, received the award in 1979.
From 1947 to 1957, Kahn taught at Yale and also served as resident architect at the American Academy in Rome. His reputation as an architect was firmly established with the building of the British Art Center. His other major commissions include the Salk Institute in La Jollaâ Calif., the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worthâ Texas and the National Assembly in Dacca, Bangladesh.
“Kahn believed that natural light is essential to fully appreciate the works contained within,” the AIA said in a press release. “Hence, the majestic four-story entrance courtyard is awash in natural light.”
Kahn’s architecture is notable for its complex play between light and materials and simple geometric forms. Artificial illumination is used only on dark days or in the evening because Kahn wanted to allow as much daylight as possible into the galleries.
The British Art Center’s metal and glass facade creates an elegant yet fitting presence in downtown New Haven as the four-story grid of glass and steel naturally flows into the streamlined concrete exterior of the Yale University Art Gallery across the street. Before the British Art Center, no other museum had incorporated retail space into its design.
A palette of natural materials such as marble, white oak and Belgian linen smoothly blends with the man-made steel and concrete panels of the geometrical interior. The exterior grid reflects the clarity and organization of the layout within.
“The interior spaces are well planned for easy movement through the exhibits. They frequently reveal surprising glimpses of one another,” the AIA jury said. “A quiet feeling of delight grows within you with the discovery of each new space, and the manner in which the whole is subtly revealed has an ever-surprisingly complexity.”
The building’s design, materials and sky-lit rooms combine to create a harmonious and dignified environment to showcase valuable works of art. Kahn cleverly created stunning spaces to complement the collection without overwhelming it.
“Despite its cold exterior and grand entrance, the light, detail work and wood finishing make the offices and winding back rooms a warm place to work,” said Margo Angelopoulos ARCH ’06, who works at the British Art Center.
Like many of Kahn’s works, the British Art Center is an excellent example of the architect’s creation of a serene environment for contemplation as well as an art gallery. In a year marked by the violence of war and the devastation of natural disasters, the British Art Center provides a timeless sanctuary for repose and escape from everyday life.